Home Feature NASA Taps Chattanooga Entrepreneur in Race For Better Ways To Detect COVID

NASA Taps Chattanooga Entrepreneur in Race For Better Ways To Detect COVID

by Maija Ehlinger

Let’s talk about bad breath. 

We’ve all experienced the unpleasant situation of sitting next to someone with bad breath or being stuck in public without a breath mint ourselves. But, as George Yu, PhD. told Hypepotamus, bad breath is not just an inconvenience — it can actually tell a lot about someone’s health. 

“All of us expel volatile organic compounds out of our breath. But there are a lot more subtleties in that depending on your illness or depending on your body’s reaction, or even what you’re eating. There are unique signatures that are coming out of your breath,” said Yu.  

Studies suggest that COVID also has such a signature, and scientists at NASA have tapped Yu and his team to help explore ways to better “sniff” out the potential spread of the virus with the smartphone app E-Nose. 

Yu previously worked with NASA and the Department of Homeland Security before diving into his current Chattanooga startup, Variable. After graduating with a PhD from Georgia Tech in electrical engineering, he started looking at how sensors could monitor air quality inside of a spacecraft and how Homeland Security agents could better detect toxic gas. This work would lay the groundwork for E-Nose. 

But it would be a trip down the Home Depot paint aisle that would push him into entrepreneurship. “My wife and I are trying to pick out colors for our daughter’s room…and I couldn’t believe that in the 21st century, people are still picking colors and colors using paper cards.” 

After his work with NASA and the Department of Homeland Security, Yu started looking for commercial opportunities for sensor technology. “I said I think I can build a product company. I love sensors, I think there’s a great opportunity to use sensors together with smartphones,” said Yu, something that was incredibly novel back in 2011. 

Variable now uses unique sensor technology to create mobile-paired spectrophotometers and colorimeters, which make it easier to match specific paint swabs. 

Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart

Yu said he got a call from former colleague Dr. Jing Li to start testing E-Nose’s COVID testing capabilities. The Variable team built out the latest E-Nose prototype, which processes, displays, and transmits sensor data through a smartphone app. 

While Variable joining as a NASA subcontractor on the E-Nose project is a very different project for the paint-focused company, Yu says the base sensor technology could be an important step to ending the pandemic. “If we could lend a hand, if we could make a difference, we needed to make that difference,” added Yu.

“Once the clinical trials are completed and the sensitivity and specificity are demonstrated, E-Nose can be deployed in factories, airports, grocery stores, and businesses of all sorts to rapidly screen for active infections,” said Li in a statement released by NASA about the project. “It’s a non-invasive and rapid way to keep our communities safe as this pandemic continues.”

Yu said about 20% of the Variable team is working on the NASA project at any time. He added that such technology is important not only to help end the current pandemic, but could also help with other infectious diseases. “It could be for another disease down the road,” he added.



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